JOLIET, Ill. - A suburban Chicago man was sentenced to life in prison Tuesday for killing his wife and three school-age children as they sat buckled into the family's SUV — allegedly so he could start a new life subsisting in the Canadian wilderness.
The sentencing of Christopher Vaughn, 37, came two months after jurors found him guilty of killing his 34-year-old wife, Kimberly, and their children on June 14, 2007. Each child was shot once in the chest and head.
The judge sentenced Vaughn to four consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole. Vaughn did not make a statement in court.
Kimberly Vaughn's twin sister, Susan Ledbetter, poignantly described her pain, telling the court how she occasionally walks by a mirror and sees her sister's image and how she hears her sister's laughter whenever she laughs.
"I silently wonder if my parents and older sister experience pain in my presence because Kim and I share not only our looks but also many of our personality traits," she said, weeping as she read her impact statement to the court.
Vaughn, who lived with his family in a spacious Oswego home, faced a mandatory life term for the killings. But the hearing in Joliet gave relatives a chance to confront him and to convey how much pain he caused.
The 2007 murders started out as a death penalty case, slowing the pace to trial. But Illinois has since abolished capital punishment, making life in prison the maximum penalty.
"There isn't a punishment that fits this crime," Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow told reporters outside the courtroom after the sentencing.
"What this guy did here was a diabolical atrocity, and he's a heartless, soulless, psychopath," Glasgow said.
Vaughn murdered his family members, prosecutors say, because he saw them as obstacles to his dream of a new life in Canada. He posted wistful Internet messages about building a cabin and settling in the Yukon cut off from the world.
According to prosecutors, Vaughn woke his family on the day of the killings promising a surprise trip to a water park. But shortly after 5 a.m., he pulled off the road, shot his wife, then killed 12-year-old Abigayle, 11-year-old Cassandra and Blake, 8.
Abigayle was found holding a stuffed animal; Blake's wounds indicated he had raised his arm to shield himself.
Kimberly Vaughn's father, Del Phillips, described his own struggle since then in a statement read to the court by a prosecutor. He said the loss has made him hesitate before he hugs his other grandchildren.
"Emotionally, as a result of these four executions, I have unwittingly withdrawn from playing with my surviving grandchildren," the statement said.
At trial, defence attorneys told jurors that Vaughn's wife was to blame, saying she was suicidal over marital strife. They suggested she shot her husband in the wrist and leg, then killed the children and herself.
Prosecutors balked at that theory, asking jurors whether it seems reasonable that a woman who disliked guns could have shot her husband twice, only grazing him each time, but fatally shot each of her children with a marksman's precision.
They said Vaughn shot himself to make it look like his wife carried out the attack. Prosecutors said Vaughn showed little emotion after the shootings and was more interested in his damaged clothing than his family's fate.
Kimberly Vaughn's mother, Susan Phillips, told reporters she hoped the trial's conclusion might allow them to begin to heal and to strengthen relationships with friends who she said no longer knew how to speak to them after the killings.
"People started to cry before we ever say a word, and then we end up being the comforter," she said. "But in a way that's also I think part of our closure, we're able to give."
She said the family never suspected Vaughn was capable of committing such a crime.
She described her son-in-law as introverted and pre-occupied with computers and his BlackBerry, but said that as a teacher she knew children who behaved similarly and didn't think much of it.
"It wasn't peculiar at that time," she said.
Del Phillips, however, recalled how his son-in-law seemed not to know how to hug or play with his children and that he appeared to be studying the grandfather's interactions with them so he would know how to behave. He said Vaughn was skilled at portraying emotion at the right moments.
In hindsight, he said of Vaughn, "He's the evil in the night."
He said he wished Vaughn would have said something at the sentencing hearing.
"'I'm sorry' would have been a good one," Phillips said. "If he would have just said that, it would have helped a little bit on the closure aspect."